Monday, January 14, 2013

Re-reading Martin du Gard (I)

At least thirty-five years ago I greedily devoured this 871-page translation of a novel by the 1937 Nobel Prize-winning novelist Roger Martin du Gard, and eventually went on to its even longer continuation, Summer 1914. Both volumes of Stuart Gilbert's translation are long out-of-print, and the author, when he is mentioned at all in the English-speaking world, is generally dismissed (unfairly, I think) as one of those Nobel laureates whose existence proves the utter irrelevance of the prize. He seems to have retained a bit more respect, or at any rate to have stayed in print, in his native France.

Be that as it may, after all these years I'm reading the book in French for the first time, intending to make it at least as far as La mort du père, the sixth of the novel's eight parts. (The final two correspond to Summer 1914.) Because of the book's length and my indifferent French I never had any intention of reading it in the original, but I changed my mind and am now steadily making my way through, dictionary and the translation in hand.

The first six parts of Les Thibault are essentially a family saga, set in the years leading up to the First World War. The paterfamilias is a well-connected Parisian Catholic autocrat, a widower with two sons. The elder, Antoine, is in training to become a physician as the book begins, while the younger, Jacques, a teenager, has just run away to Marseilles in the company of a friend, Daniel, with whom he is suspected (incorrectly, as it happens) of having a relationship of a forbidden nature. Jacques is eventually retrieved by his older brother, then consigned by his father to a reformatory as punishment, which is about where I am now, in Part Two, Le pénitencier.

In re-reading the narrative I'm surprised at how much of it I had either forgotten or misremembered, and mostly this is due, no doubt, to the length of time since I first read it and the immense size of the book, but I'm also getting the feeling, when I do need to refer to the translation to clarify a passage, that part of the problem is that Gilbert's translation is not simply dated but actually quite bad. Some of his readings are all but unrecognizable when compared with Martin du Gard's words. The passage below, which describes part of a conversation between the brothers when Antoine visits Jacques in the reformatory for the first time, provides both an example and, in part, a possible exculpation. First the French text, with Antoine speaking first:
— « Mais non, mon petit, c’est juré, je ne ferai rien contre ta volonté. Seulement, écoute-moi. Cette solitude morale, cette paresse, cette promiscuité ! Moi qui, ce matin, avais cru que tu étais heureux ! »

— « Mais je le suis ! » En un instant, tout ce dont il venait de se plaindre s’effaça: la monotonie des jours, l’oisiveté, l’absence de contrôle, l’éloignement des siens.
And now Stuart Gilbert:
"But of course, old man; I've sworn it! I'll do nothing you don't want me to do. Only, listen. Do you want to go on like this, frittering your life away in idleness, with no one of your own kind to talk to, in these sordid surroundings? And to think that only this morning I imagined you were happy here!"

"But I am happy!" In a moment all he had complained of fled from his mind, and all he now was conscious of was the languid ease of his seclusion, the somnolent routine and absence of control, not to mention his isolation from his family.
Even with my deficient French, I can see that parts of this translation are absurd. Gilbert not only expands a simple list constructed out of seven words — Cette solitude morale, cette paresse, cette promiscuité — into a long-winded rhetorical question, he also arguably butchers the sense of promiscuité, which probably has nothing sordid about it (although there are some sordid aspects to the boy's confinement) and only means "overcrowding" or "lack of privacy." But the interesting thing is in the next paragraph. In the French text, the point of the last sentence is that, a few moments earlier, Jacques had been bitterly bemoaning his life in the reformatory; but now, all of his complaints — the monotony, idleness, the lack of control over his own life, the separation from his family — have apparently been forgotten. Gilbert seemingly turns this around: Jacques forgets his earlier complaints, and reflects on how good he has it in the reformatory: he has a soft life, an easy routine, no one controls him, and he's away from his family (which is apparently a good thing). How could Gilbert have misconstrued the whole thrust of the sentence so badly?

But in this case, the translator is off the hook. As I discovered when I researched this passage online, Gilbert must have used a different version of the final sentence, one that reads, "En un instant, tout ce dont il venait de se plaindre s’effaça: il ne vit plus que les douceurs de sa réclusion, la monotonie des jours, l’oisiveté, l’absence de contrôle, l’éloignement des siens." Gilbert's translation more or less adheres to this version.

The words in bold are not in the edition I own, which bears the Gallimard imprint but which was printed in Canada in 1945. Every online text of the book that I've looked at (I haven't tried to be exhaustive) contains the highlighted words, and it's obvious that the edition Gilbert worked from must have contained them (or something similar) as well. Gilbert's translation was published in 1939, which means there are two possibilities:
1) Martin du Gard made revisions to the original published text (specifically, deleting the words in bold) that are reflected in the Canadian edition, but Gilbert worked from an earlier version.

2) Martin du Gard made revisions to the original published text (specifically, adding the words in bold), and Gilbert worked from that text, but the Canadian edition continued to reprint the earlier version of the text.
The situation is somewhat puzzling, as the longer version of the final sentence seems a complete muddle. But it was apparently the author's muddle, not the translator's. In any case, literary market conditions being what they are, I suspect that it's unlikely that Gilbert's translation of this massive novel will ever be replaced by a better one.

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